A Victorian Christmas

WHAT was Christmas like for a child in Ipswich during the Victorian period? Thanks to a wonderful handwritten book by the late Grace Rodwell, we have a magical glimpse of Christmas from over 100 years ago.

WHAT was Christmas like for a child in Ipswich during the Victorian period?

Thanks to a wonderful handwritten book by the late Grace Rodwell, we have a magical glimpse of Christmas from over 100 years ago.

The book was loaned to me by Grace's daughter, Margaret Haste, who lives in Ipswich.

Grace Rodwell (nee Hubert) was born in March 1891 and lived with her family at 13 Newton Road, Ipswich. In her later years Grace, with remarkable recall, wrote her life story.

Grace was a pupil at Rosehill Road School and her writing is from an era when children were all taught to use the same Victorian style. Among the extraordinary memories is the Christmas Day family food. First thing Christmas Day her mother served prunes with senna pods!

Grace said: “She used to put senna pods in when she stewed the prunes, but we did not know until later! For lunch it was swan from the round pond on Christchurch Park! Swans have long been protected by law, but this did not stop her father's friend, who worked at the mansion, supplying the huge bird. It must have lasted until Easter! The bird was so big it had to be taken to the local bakers shop to find an oven big enough to fit it in!”

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The following are the memories of Grace, who died in March 1981:

“Each year waiting for Christmas seemed to get longer. For three weeks before carol singers came to our street. We had visits from the Salvation Army, the Town Mission and a German band. They all played the well loved carols like, The Mistletoe Bough, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. They would stand under the gas lamp opposite out house. It was a great thrill to tumble out of bed and run into our parent's bedroom to watch from their window. Out of our warm beds we would shiver with the cold, but it did not matter.

“They would put a note through the door saying they would call the next day for a contribution. Then it was back to bed with the blissful feeling that Christmas was near”.

“About a week before Christmas my brothers would go into the country and bring home branches of holly. Along the Bucklesham Road there were banks of fir trees. They broke off branches and we made a Christmas tree which reached to the ceiling. We then had the great pleasure of trimming and decorating it. I had the job of making coloured paper chains.

“My father's friend, Mr Damant, was caretaker at Christchurch Mansion. He would sell us a swan from the round pond. This was hung on a hook over the kitchen door until my parents plucked it. It was so long it hung from the top of the frame to the bottom. While it was being plucked we were told to keep out of the kitchen. Once I opened the door and it looked like snow storm! Mother and father each sat on a chair with the bird lying across their laps plucking away for all they were worth. The swan was so big it had to be taken to the bakers shop at the corner of Tomline Road to be roasted in their big oven”.

“In winter my father wore long pale blue stockings which stretched over his knees. On Christmas Eve he would write our names on a piece of paper and pin them to the stockings. I would wake up with a thrill at 2am on Christmas Day and feel the shapes of the presents. I knew my brothers were also awake as I would hear them talking. We had the great pleasure of opening our presents by candlelight. Bigger presents were left on our beds.

“Every Christmas I had two special gifts I liked very much. One was a box of coloured candles, 72 in a box. They cost four and a half pennies. I loved the pleasure of looking and feeling these. I also had a box of coloured crackers. I thought these were wonderful. They all had different coloured shiny paper. One Christmas I had a toy piano. There were many other treasures I found in father's long stocking. After looking at my gifts I would fall asleep.

“One of my brothers always searched all over the house before Christmas trying to find where mother had hidden our gifts. He always did! Many of our gifts cost six and a half pence and some just one penny from the penny bazaar in town. We all had a pretty little glass lantern, each of the four sides had a different colour. I used to put one of my candles in and go upstairs in the dark and sing carols along the landing with the coloured lantern looking so pretty.

“My mother always had a saucer full of prunes for us when we came downstairs on Christmas morning. She used to put sena pods in when she stewed the prunes, but we did not know until later! We always had sausages for breakfast.

“There was always a big blazing fire in the front room. On the large table with the Christmas tree were dishes full of all kinds of nuts. Others of raisins and figs, slices of coconut, sweets and grapes. How happy we were and how hard my dear parents had worked to give us such a wonderful Christmas”.

“At 4pm every Christmas my mother's friend came with her son to have tea. In the evening the son and my father, who both had fine voices, would sing songs like “The Anchors Weighed” which was rather sad and several funny songs as well. I thought the lady visitor was very old at sixty; she always wore a woollen shawl and a white lace bonnet with small black bows. I did small jobs for her including errands and washing her step and path for which she paid me three pence!

We had three days of Christmas in the front room in front of the blazing fire. How tame it all seemed when it was over.


Swans are the property of the crown and have been protected by law since 1482. In medieval times swan was considered as a delicacy.

There are many more wonderful memories of Ipswich from a Victorian and Edwardian Childhood in Grace's handwritten book. I will feature some more next week.

Local headlines from the first ten years of Grace's life.

1891: March 28. The Lyceum Theatre opened in Carr Street, Ipswich.

1892: April 21: A referendum on the town purchasing Christchurch Park (the estate of the late owner William Fonnereau had offered the park to the corporation for £50,000) produced a result of 3,784 for, 5110 against.

1893. January 1. Ice carnival held on Christchurch Park.

1894. March 10: Fore Street Baths opened.

1894. October 10: The town council decided to purchase for £16,000 the remaining portions of Christchurch Park after parts had been sold for building development.

1895: February11: The temperature dropped to -18c (0f). An ice skating carnival was held in Ipswich. The winter was so cold rivers froze over.

1896: September 1. The first edition of the Ipswich Herald was printed. It amalgamated with the Evening Star in July 1898.

1897. July 21. “Tempest and Torrent” as streets and houses were flooded in Ipswich. Two boys were killed by lightning.

1898. Barnham and Bailey's circus came to town. It returned in July 1899.

1899: November 19: The new Ipswich fire station in Bond Street opened.

1900: November 9: Extension to Ipswich Museum and library opened.

1901: February 2: All businesses and public houses closed from 10am to 6pm for Queen Victoria's funeral.

What is the oldest established company name still trading in Ipswich? Several over the older company names have gone in recent years. Grimwade's shop on the Cornhill was familiar to generations of shoppers. Martin and Newby's shop in Fore Street has gone more recently. Engineering companies like Ransomes Sims and Jefferies, Ransomes and Rapier, where generation worked, have gone too. A strong contender for the oldest name still operating must be The Ancient House Press which was established in 1845 as a book selling and printing business.

Some wonderful photographs from the company's past were sent to me recently including a Christmas party for children of the staff and a printing works picture from the days well before computer based printing systems. The Ancient House building in the Buttermarket was a book shop until around twelve years ago. The printing and book selling business were separated decades ago. The printing business still trades on the Hadleigh Road Industrial Estate, Ipswich over 160 years later.

The company was founded by Frederick Pawsey who sold the business to the Harrison family in 1897. They retained ownership until 1971.

Did you work for the company during the days of hand set type or are you in the Christmas party picture? Is there an older Ipswich company name still operating? Write to Dave Kindred, Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich.IP4 1AN.